Relationships are funny things. No two are alike and yet, at the same time, all share many similarities as well. One such similarity we all share in are times of frustration with our loved ones.
I often speak with couples having hard times in their relationships or marriages and they often sound quite clear on what their partner is doing that is flaring up their frustrations. At some point I always ask what it was that first attracted them to their partners and what they initially fell in love with and, like clock work, their answers reveal that the things they loved and cherished in each other, as they fell in love, were the same qualities that frustrate them now.
For example, seven years ago John fell in love with Louise; he loved how care free she was and how spontaneous and in the moment she could be. He was much more ordered and practical and was more used to a life well planned out, a life without too many surprises. John was attracted to those qualities in Louise, which he himself would have liked to possess.
Louise, on the other hand, fell in love with John’s solidity. He was grounded, stable and practical, all qualities which she was attracted to which she wasn’t accessing in herself, and qualities which were needed to balance her out.
Now fast-forward seven years. John is frustrated with Louise and needs her to change. In his mind she is inconsistent with her commitments and responsibilities and he is angry that he can’t rely on her to do things when he feels they need to be done in the home. As a result he is feeling unsupported and let down. He wishes that she could be better planned and fly less by the seat of her pants.
Louise, on the other hand, is feeling squashed and forced to live in a way that doesn’t suit her style of being. She wants John to ease up and take more risks in life. She is bored with the blandness of their relationship and wants more excitement with him.
This is typical example of how the qualities that attract couples end up eroding the warmth they have for each other. As a result of this, the qualities which partners fell in love with often become the same qualities they try to change about each other.
In my line of work as a couple’s counsellor, I often find myself saying to one or both partners, “That’s not going to happen”, or “He is not going to give you that”. Couples are often startled to find that I don’t roll up my sleeves and help them change their partners.
When couples find themselves in the situation of trying to change their partners so they feel better about themselves the role of therapy is to interrupt this trance rather than empathise and support with their needs to change the other.
The undeniable truth with relationships is that those we love are also our burdens. Too often we just want to take the parts that work for us right now and leave the rest of them in the bottom drawer.
For many couples, the magic bullet to getting back on track with their marriage and finding more harmony again is to be able to look at their partner and say, “this is who they are, and this is who they will continue to be”. Once this is acknowledged, a different and scarier reality is seen by each of them.
At this point couples often see that they struggle to love each other for who they truly are; eventually this leads to a more useful and practical question to ponder, and that is “How do I learn to live with this person for who they truly are, while living with who I truly am too”?. And the answer to this is, of course, will be different for us all.